Major General Qassem Soleimani - Iran News

Iran threatened on Friday to hit back hard after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East. Iran has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

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The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered Soleimani’s “killing”, after a pro-Iran mob this week laid siege to the US embassy. US lawmakers however were not told in advance of Friday’s attack, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel said in a statement.

Soleimani was a general who was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The overnight attack, authorised by President Donald Trump, marked a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack.

“A lot of the focus is on what is the price that the US is gonna pay and how Iran will retaliate against the US,” said Fanar Haddad of the Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.

Analysts said the strike would be a gamechanger in the tensions between Iran and the US.

“Trump changed the rules -— he wanted (Soleimani) eliminated,” said Ramzy Mardini, a researcher at the US Institute of Peace.

Phillip Smyth, a US-based specialist in Shiite armed groups, described the strike as “the most major decapitation strike that the US has ever pulled off.” He told AFP it would have “bigger” ramifications than the 2011 US operation that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 American raid that killed Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “There is no comparison,” Smyth added.

But others said it remains unclear how Iran could respond to the blow.

Iran’s Retaliation Options

If Iran decides to follow through on its vow of harsh retaliation for the killing of its top general, it can call upon heavily armed allies across the Middle East that are within easy striking distance of U.S. forces and American allies.

It’s a network that was developed over nearly two decades by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed along with senior Iraqi militants in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s international airport overnight. He enjoyed the fierce loyalty of tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip who received aid, arms and training from Tehran.

Iran has used such groups in the past to strike its regional foes, including Israel, and could mobilize them if the killing of Soleimani ignited an armed conflict — dramatically expanding the battlefield.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.”

Here’s a look at Tehran’s allies in the Mideast:

IRAQ MILITIAS

Iran has trained, financed, and equipped Shiite militias in Iraq that battled U.S. forces in the years after the 2003 invasion and remobilized to battle the Islamic State group a decade later.

Shiite Militias in Iraq
Shiite Militias

The groups include Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataeb Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, all three led by men with close ties to Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in the strike that felled Soleimani. The U.S. blamed his group for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base last week that killed a U.S. contractor. It responded with airstrikes over the weekend that killed 25 of his fighters.

The militias fall under the umbrella of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of mostly Shiite militias that were incorporated into the country’s armed forces in 2016. Together they number more than 140,000 fighters, and while they fall under the authority of Iraq’s prime minister, the PMF’s top brass are politically aligned with Iran.

U.S. forces and the PMF fought side-by-side against Islamic State militants after Iraq’s parliament invited the U.S. back into the country in 2014. But in recent months militia leaders have called on U.S. troops to leave again, threatening to expel them by force if necessary.

HEZBOLLAH

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The militia, whose Arabic name translates into “Party of God,” was established by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. Today it is among the most effective armed groups in the region, extending Iran’s influence to Israel’s doorstep.

Hezbollah (Hizbullah) Military Precision Guided Missile Capability
Hezbollah Military Precision Guided Missile Capability

Hezbollah was formed to combat Israel following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It waged an 18-year guerrilla war against Israeli forces, eventually forcing them to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. Six years later, it battled Israel to a bloody stalemate in a month-long war.

Today, the group has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles that can reach deep into Israel, as well as thousands of highly disciplined and battle-hardened fighters. Hezbollah has fought alongside government forces in Syria for more than six years, gaining even more battlefield experience and expanding its reach.

At home, the group’s power exceeds that of the Lebanese armed forces, and it is part of a political alliance that now leads the government and parliament.

Hezbollah has said it is not seeking another war with Israel, and it is not likely to join in any regional confrontation — at least not in the early stages — unless provoked. Hezbollah has lost hundreds of fighters in Syria, exacting a heavy toll on the Shiite community from which it draws most of its support.

YEMEN’S HOUTHIS

Yemen’s Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, swept down from the north and captured the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict on the side of the government the following year. The war has since killed tens of thousands of people and generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Yemeni Missiles - Yemen News
Yemeni Missiles – Yemen News

Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, and along with Western nations and U.N. experts has accused Tehran of providing arms to the rebels, including the long-range missiles they have fired into Saudi Arabia. Iran supports the rebels but denies arming them.

The Houthis have given up little ground since the coalition entered the war, and have targeted the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with long-range missiles. Last year they claimed a drone attack that shut down a major oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, which responded with airstrikes on Yemen’s rebel-held capital that killed civilians.

GAZA MILITANTS

Iran has long supported Palestinian militant groups, including Gaza’s Hamas rulers and particularly the smaller Islamic Jihad group.

Hamas fell out with Iran after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, losing millions of dollars in monthly assistance, but Tehran is said to have continued its military support to Hamas’ armed wing.

Hamas Long-Range Missiles
Hamas Long-Range Missiles

Tensions have run high in Gaza since Israel’s targeted killing of an Islamic Jihad commander last month, which set off a brief two-day bout of fighting. Hamas, which has been negotiating a period of calm with Israel through Egyptian mediators, stayed on the sidelines.

Hamas is in a severe financial crisis and appears to get most of its aid from Qatar, making it less likely that it would rally to Tehran’s side in a regional conflict. But Islamic Jihad, still smarting from the recent fighting, could be keen to join in any regional conflict by firing rockets.

Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour Party Leader: “The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani is an extremely serious and dangerous escalation of conflict with global significance. The UK government should urge restraint on the part of both Iran and the US, and stand up to the belligerent actions and rhetoric coming from the US.”

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